Follow your an­i­mal instincts to keep fit

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

Act­ing like an an­i­mal is not, in nor­mal cir­cum­stances, con­sid­ered to be a good thing. Few of us as­pire to the so­cial habits of go­ril­las, bears or frogs. In­deed we spend a lot of time sub­con­sciously tam­ing our in­ner beast, curb­ing our ap­petites, try­ing to be­have like civilised hu­man be­ings.

But while pick­ing fleas off each other and fight­ing sav­agely over po­ten­tial mates might not be de­sir­able traits in the hu­man world, there are other an­i­mal habits that we would do well to mimic: the way they move, for ex­am­ple.

Our seden­tary life­styles mean that most of us aren’t us­ing our mus­cles prop­erly. As small chil­dren we squat, crawl and leap around freely, but the older we get the more re­stricted our moves be­come and many of our mus­cles get lit­tle ac­tion as we sit at desks or in cars, oc­ca­sion­ally hit­ting the gym where we use ma­chines to work on spe­cific mus­cles rather than the whole body.

Now a new form of fit­ness, an in­tense work­out based on “pri­mal” move­ments, such as squat­ting and crawl­ing, has come to the UK from Aus­tralia, where its founder, Nathan Hel­berg, has been us­ing it for eight years, teach­ing ev­ery­one from spe­cial forces to po­lice forces, mil­i­tary, school­child­ren, pen­sion­ers and even pris­on­ers to un­leash their in­ner beast.

A for­mer power lifter, he re­alised that while weights had made some of his mus­cles very strong, oth­ers re­mained weak and his joints felt vul­ner­a­ble. So, tak­ing his in­spi­ra­tion from mar­tial arts, break-danc­ing, the an­i­mal world and the dance move­ments of in­dige­nous peo­ples, he de­vel­oped Zuu. It re­volves around seven main move­ments: push, pull, bend, twist, squat, lunge and lo­co­mo­tion. Th­ese are in­cor­po­rated into more than 100 an­i­mal moves – although be­gin­ners start with about 25 – that work mus­cles, joints, fas­cia and lig­a­ments, as well as im­prov­ing car­dio­vas­cu­lar fit­ness.

Hel­berg has in­tro­duced it to Bri­tain through Vir­gin Ac­tive gyms, and the classes are prov­ing hugely popular. He hopes to bring it to schools too with a Zuu Chimps pro­gramme for chil­dren.

Zuu needs no equip­ment and lit­tle space, and fits in with the cur­rent trend of “func­tional” train­ing, which aims to train your body for ac­tiv­i­ties per­formed in daily life.

“It’s quick, low-im­pact, it tops up your strength but doesn’t bulk you up, and it burns fat and raises your heart rate. You can burn up to 600 calo­ries in a half-hour ses­sion, or up to 800 when you get fit­ter,” Hel­berg says.

He of­fers me a master class, along­side two of his train­ers. I am daunted, not just by their fit­ness but by the prospect of do­ing things I haven’t done since kinder­garten – at high speed. We do each move­ment for 30 seconds, fol­lowed by a 10-sec­ond pause (for my ben­e­fit – as you get fit­ter, you keep on for 45 seconds).

We start with what seems an in­nocu­ous frog squat: legs wide, knees bent, el­bows locked inside knees. It’s a lit­tle undig­ni­fied, but fine, at first. Then as the seconds go by the fronts of my thighs start to burn and it’s all I can do not to col­lapse like a squashed frog. After the 30 seconds we dash back across the room to our start­ing point.

Hel­berg as­sures me the frog squat works won­ders by elon­gat­ing mus­cles, open­ing out the hips and al­le­vi­at­ing lower back pain. It’s par­tic­u­larly good if you spend most of your wak­ing mo­ments in an of­fice chair. He rec­om­mends that clients take a break from their desk and frog-squat for four min­utes a day. Why ever not?

There’s barely a pause to catch breath, then it’s on to a bear crawl. On hands and feet, bums in the air, we crawl across the room. While Hel­berg and the oth­ers shoot across the room I lum­ber like an an­cient griz­zly. Then we do it again – back­wards.

It’s ex­haust­ing and I feel clumsy and cum­ber­some, although it does get slightly eas­ier as I go on. This move­ment uses ev­ery joint in the body, strength­en­ing lig­a­ments, ten­dons and fas­cia. But with the weight spread, it has a low im­pact on the joints and is good on the car­dio­vas­cu­lar front too, rais­ing heart rate as ef­fec­tively as run­ning.

Next we have to leap like go­ril­las, reach­ing for­ward with our hands, then springing the feet for­ward to land out­side the hands. This breaks your nor­mal breath­ing rhythm, work­ing your di­aphragm and rais­ing your heart rate rapidly, just like sprint­ing.

Per­haps be­ing a snake will be eas­ier. But there’s no ly­ing flat on our bel­lies. In­stead we have to raise our bod­ies an inch off the floor, rock­ing the weight back and forth from hands to toes. It strength­ens the top half of our bod­ies and core, but it’s a strug­gle to keep go­ing for the full minute.

Crawl­ing like an iguana is even tougher as all your body weight rests on two points. Again, it’s good for open­ing up hips, burn­ing fat and strength­en­ing your core mus­cles, length­en­ing and strength­en­ing other mus­cles. By the end I am shak­ing with ex­haus­tion.

I thought I was rea­son­ably fit – I run 5km three times a week – but after this beast­ing I re­alise how lit­tle I push my­self nor­mally. Hel­berg prom­ises that I could in­crease my up­per body strength by 30 per cent in just six weeks by do­ing three Zuu classes a week. I have com­pro­mised and bear-crawl around the gar­den dur­ing my screen breaks, to the be­muse­ment of the dog. Although Zuu is new to Bri­tain, it is not the only work­out to use an­i­mal moves. Back in 186 BC a Chi­nese physi­cian named Hua Tuo de­vel­oped “Ex­er­cise of the Five An­i­mals” to pro­mote health and longevity, after study­ing deer, tigers, bears, apes and birds. An­i­mal moves have long been a sta­ple of chil­dren’s gym­nas­tics classes and a work­out called An­i­mal Flow is be­com­ing popular in the United States and over here. De­spite my ini­tial in­hi­bi­tions, by the end of my Zuu class I have started to en­joy my­self. It’s like play­ing a chil­dren’s party game, only sweatier, and with no jelly and cake af­ter­wards. While it’s hard not to gig­gle when you’re im­i­tat­ing a bear on rewind, af­ter­wards, I am so tired the only an­i­mal I want to mimic is a sloth.

Go ape: Annabel is put through her paces by Nathan Hel­berg, the Aus­tralian founder of the Zuu to­tal fit­ness work­out which is rapidly catch­ing on in this coun­try

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